By Howard Witt, Tribune senior correspondent
5:09 PM EDT, May 8, 2013
Gina Blandin has a theory about what caused the flooding disaster that befell New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck last August, an idea that has little to do with engineering studies or physical evidence and everything to do with the poisonous history of race relations in this starkly segregated city.
"I think they blew up those levees and let the water come in," said Blandin, who lost her apartment in the Mid-City neighborhood to the floodwaters and is now living temporarily in Houston. "They were happy that this storm hit, to get all of us black people out of the city."
For Blandin, a bartender at Antoine's Restaurant, the landmark French Quarter institution that is struggling to reopen four months after Katrina hit, and many other African-American residents who were driven from their homes, the evidence suggests unseen powers ordered the sabotage of New Orleans' protective levees to cause low-lying black neighborhoods to flood.
The plot, according to those who believe it, was to use the deadly hurricane to transform this majority-black city into a whiter, richer place. And everything that has happened since--the delays in reopening the poorest districts, the shuttering of the city's public housing projects, the sluggish delivery of federal storm aid, the mass layoff of the city's mostly black municipal workforce--has only reinforced the fear of many exiled black residents that New Orleans will be reconstructed without them.
"There have already been great changes in the composition of who New Orleans is and what she looks like," said Cynthia Willard-Lewis, the City Council member who represents the Lower 9th Ward, upscale Gentilly and several other predominantly black districts that were flooded. "Now the question becomes, who can return?"
It is a question strongly informed by history in a city that, before Katrina, was 67 percent black, 28 percent poverty-stricken and deeply marked by the flight of whites to the suburbs.
"Even before Hurricane Katrina hit, greater New Orleans was one of the more troubled metropolitan areas in the nation," the Brookings Institution wrote in an October report. "Sharp racial segregation and high concentrations of poverty, decentralization and a slowing economy all challenged the region."
So did outright racism. David Duke, the notorious white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader, was elected to the state Legislature by white voters in Metairie, next door to New Orleans, in 1989. The city's signature Mardi Gras organizations, or krewes, were not officially desegregated until 1991.
After Katrina hit, officials of the nearly all-white parish of St. Bernard, bordering New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, ordered rail cars dragged across the roads as a blockade. In Gretna, a majority-white suburb just across the Mississippi from New Orleans, police officers stood guard to turn back New Orleanians trying to flee across the Crescent City Bridge.
And even now, residents of predominantly white communities across southern Louisiana, citing fears of crime and "outsiders," are resisting efforts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to locate temporary trailer parks for storm evacuees in their neighborhoods. The not-in-my-back yard phenomenon has begun surfacing in wealthier New Orleans neighborhoods as well.
What particularly worries Willard-Lewis and many of her constituents are the proceedings of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, an advisory blue-ribbon panel appointed by New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin to draft a plan for the wounded city's future. The commission's recommendations are due in early January, but already a major study prepared for the panel by the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit land-use think tank, has raised alarms.
The institute's experts bluntly recommended writing off huge swaths of the city and postponing their resettlement far into the future so that less heavily damaged neighborhoods might be resuscitated first. The study argued for this approach in part because of uncertainty over whether the federal government will spend the tens of billions of dollars flood-protection experts say would be needed to shield those low-lying areas from future storms.
Right in the institute's crosshairs were some of the city's most historic and vibrant black neighborhoods.
"To have a one-time cataclysmic occurrence that brings water over 80 percent of the city and then just redline certain neighborhoods is extremely troubling," said Willard-Lewis.
But to Alden McDonald Jr., a member of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission and one of the city's prominent business leaders, the sacrifice of even his own neighborhood of Gentilly may be necessary for the larger city to survive.
"It's reality that's bringing this about," said McDonald, president of Liberty Bank & Trust, the third-largest black-owned bank in the U.S. "We're going to have a loss of population, real simple. If you have a loss of population, you will have vacant housing. It's a formula for blighted neighborhoods. That's the No. 1 issue we have before us."
The water took its time getting to Gina Blandin's apartment building, arriving nearly 24 hours after Katrina hit New Orleans near dawn on Aug. 29. And when the floods did come, rising to 4 feet all around her, they stopped short of the historic French Quarter just a few blocks away.
These facts only added to Blandin's suspicions.
"The hurricane was completely over, and you go to sleep and the next morning there's water everywhere. How did that happen?" she said. "Why else would it have happened at night? The French Quarter got no water. They knew what they were doing."
One resident of the Lower 9th Ward, the home of much of the city's rich black culture until every house was damaged or destroyed in the flooding, testified before a congressional panel earlier this month that her neighbors heard explosions coming from a nearby flood wall just before the water rushed in.
"I was on my front porch," Dyan French told the House committee probing the response to Katrina. "I have witnesses that say they bombed the walls of the levee. And the debris that's in front of my door will testify to that."
Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, first raised the possibility of sabotage in September. He asserted that in one of the levees "there was a 25-foot hole, which suggested that it may have been blown up, so that the water would destroy the black part of town."
The theory that someone intentionally sabotaged the levees to target black residents might easily be dismissed as urban paranoia. After all, many predominantly white neighborhoods in and around New Orleans also were inundated.
Moreover, forensic engineering experts studying the disaster universally have declared that the levees failed due to design and construction flaws, not dynamite. The explosive noises some 9th Ward residents reported hearing were caused by the cracking of the concrete levees and a huge barge that slammed into the flood walls during the storm, engineers assert.
"We can see lots of evidence why those people could have heard very loud sounds that could have sounded like explosions," said Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of a National Science Foundation panel that investigated the levee failures.
"As that concrete is breaking, it will emit sounds that probably to them sounded very much like muffled gunshots," Bea added. "Then they would have these very large booming sounds as that barge was slamming against the walls. Those residents probably heard what they heard, but they came to the wrong conclusion. We didn't see any signs of explosive action."
Yet the paranoia and conspiracy theories are rooted in real history. Such sabotage of levees has happened before.
In April 1927, as torrents of water from the Great Mississippi Flood bore down upon New Orleans from hundreds of miles upstream, the city's bankers and backroom power brokers maneuvered the governor to approve dynamiting a down-river levee to relieve pressure on the city's flood walls. The decision spared wealthy white districts of New Orleans but doomed neighboring St. Bernard Parish and low-lying black neighborhoods to a devastating flood.
The notion that some political leaders regard Katrina as a lever to permanently alter the city's demographics also might sound a lot like hysteria--except that several politicians have come close to saying as much.
"We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans," Rep. Richard Baker (R.-La.) was quoted by The Wall Street Journal as saying. "We couldn't do it, but God did."
"New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again," Alphonso Jackson, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, told a Houston audience, according to the Houston Chronicle.
The continuing shutdown of the city's public housing developments--even those that did not flood--has only deepened suspicions of neighborhood activists that a mass gentrification of the city's poor districts is being planned.
The Housing Authority of New Orleans, operating under HUD receivership because of past mismanagement, contracted with a security company to weld heavy steel plates over the doors and windows of nearly every public housing apartment.
"Their thinking is, the longer poor people and black people stay away, the more unlikely they will be to come back to this city," said Jay Arena, leader of C3/Hands off Iberville Coalition, a public-housing advocacy group. "It's a plan to fulfill Jackson's prophecies. We call it class and ethnic cleansing."
HUD officials deny they are trying to drive public housing residents from their former homes. Rather, they say, they want to ensure the housing units are safe before allowing residents to return.
"While a unit may appear to be safe from the outside, inside it's not safe," said Donna White, a HUD spokeswoman. "Once those safety assessments have been done, we'll be in a better position to get more families back into their homes."
William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who studies New Orleans population trends, said he hopes that happens soon.
"New Orleans has a very rooted population and a unique demographic personality," Frey said. "People will wait six or nine months to see what's happening. But after that, they may lose hope of returning. Then you won't have New Orleans. You will have somewhere else."
For all the racial tensions that have long roiled New Orleans, Antoine's Restaurant seems to have remained an island of relative tranquility in the divided city that has hosted it for 165 years. By the accounts of dozens of black and white employees alike, a climate of egalitarianism has prevailed in the back of the house, even if the patrons sitting at tables in the front were often members of the city's white, moneyed elite.
Nor would it matter to Blandin if few of her fellow workers shared her belief in a conspiracy to blow up the levees: Employees say they often banter good-naturedly about politics, race and other sensitive topics.
"We are like one big, happy family at Antoine's," said Blandin, in a comment repeated by many of her colleagues. "We just didn't have racial problems there."
About a third of the 131 employees working at Antoine's before Katrina struck were black, according to the restaurant's personnel records. That proportion will hold steady when the restaurant reopens at the end of the month with a skeleton staff of about 50, managers say--which means Antoine's, at least, will not be aggravating the African-American depopulation trend that Willard-Lewis and other leaders fear.
One measure of harmony at Antoine's is the remarkable longevity of its employees, many of whom have spent decades working at the restaurant.
They do not do it for the money. Most of the cooks, bartenders, dishwashers and busboys were earning below $7 an hour before the hurricane shuttered the restaurant, although Rick Blount, Antoine's chief executive officer, had scheduled a round of across-the-board raises for October--increases that will be boosted even higher when the restaurant reopens, Blount said.
Instead, many workers say they stay because of people like Michael Guste, Antoine's general manager, who, like his cousin Blount, is a great-great grandson of the restaurant's founder.
Guste said he suffered a terrifying experience in October, when he was driving home from the restaurant with his 12-year-old son in the passenger seat of their sport-utility vehicle. As they neared their house in Metairie, Guste recounted, two men waving guns began to tailgate them. Guste said he floored the accelerator as the two presumed carjackers gave chase, eventually eluding them by ducking into the parking lot of a shopping center.
Guste reported the incident to the police. But when a New Orleans newspaper reporter called him a few days later seeking an interview about the crime, he declined to talk about it.
The men wielding the guns had been black, Guste explained, and New Orleans still was raw with racial stereotyping in the wake of the wild rumors of crimes--most later disproven--supposedly committed across the city as the floodwaters spread.
"I didn't want the incident to get sensationalized," Guste said. "I didn't want to represent the mantra of division. One isolated incident is not a reason to consider all of our problems to be of just one class."
(This piece originally ran on Dec. 22, 2005)
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